Blade Servers: Does Smaller Mean Better?

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 2006-09-07 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

These boxes offer a compact, powerful alternative to traditional rack-mount servers. But they bring along a new set of concerns to address.

In their early days, in the late 1990s, blade servers—a system of thin circuit boards with memory and processors that are housed like books on a bookshelf in an enclosure with shared power and network connections—were marketed as a data center consolidator: a way for companies thriving in the Internet boom to pack their facilities with more computing power per server.

A standard one-unit, or 1U, rack—measuring about 6 feet high and 1 1/2 feet wide—can typically hold 33% to 100% more blade servers, depending on the blade vendor, than rack-mount servers with equal processing capabilities.

As the years went on, blade makers trumpeted other benefits such as quicker provisioning and shared connections to power, networks and storage. And companies began buying at higher clips: In 2005, worldwide sales of blade servers rose to $2.2 billion, an 80% spike over 2004, according to IDC. The research firm expects the market to reach about $3.3 billion this year.

For the geographic information systems (GIS) team in Pierce County, Wash., manager Linda Gerull wanted more processing power bang for the department's server bucks. The team, which handles mapping and imaging needs for other county departments—ranging from crime mapping to county tax assessment—in 2001 had been running 27 Windows and Unix servers with a total of 45 processors.

But the organization reached its computing capacity, meaning the unit could not launch any new applications unless a server was added to the existing setup. The GIS department opted instead to replace the mix of servers and consolidate on IBM blade servers, starting with 28 blades—seven each in four different racks. Each blade has two processors, and each of the four racks has a processor for management, bringing the total to 60 processors, a third more than with the old boxes.

On top of that, the department purchased an additional 38 processors from an assortment of 2-, 4- and 16-processor servers, bringing the total to 98 processors—more than double the old setup without doubling the cost. Without blades, Gerull says, "We probably would have come to a grinding halt."

Bells and whistles were the big attraction for Pierre Baudet, business systems manager for New Balance, the Brighton, Mass., athletic-shoe maker.

In late 2001, Baudet and his team moved servers into a new data center at New Balance's headquarters. New Balance had been using Hewlett-Packard's DL 260 and DL 360 rack-mount servers, which took two to four hours to set up and deploy. Looking to increase server provisioning speeds and management capabilities, New Balance bought 12 blade servers from HP's original line.

Baudet says provisioning the blades took about 15 minutes. Also, using remote management software, he could assign a blade to do different tasks, like act as a Web server by day and a backup server at night.

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Associate Editor

Brian joined Baseline in March 2006. In addition to previous stints at Inter@ctive Week and The Net Economy, he's written for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., as well as The Sunday Tribune in Dublin, Ireland. Brian has a B.A. from Bucknell University and a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

 
 
 
 
 
 

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